The Importance of Reading in the Digital Age

south caroliniana

Were it not such a looming and very possible prospect on our collective cultural horizon, a discussion of the demise of the book in its traditional form, that is, a compendium of knowledge bound in the confines of paper, cloth, and glue, would be not only amusing but almost surreal. The book has always been with us, ever since Mr. Gutenberg gave this gift of learning and pleasure to the world in 1439. It has been a feature of every home and office, even those occupied by people who do not actually read books, as a symbol of civilization and good taste, as well as intellectual curiosity. At least some modest stand of books can be (or could be) found in almost any drug store or grocery store, even in a small community such as ours. The library has served as yet another symbol of man’s intellectual progression and need to learn and enjoy. Books have evinced such passions and have helped create such discussions that lead to controversy that on some dark occasions they have been burned by misdirected individuals who thought that if the conveyors of certain ideas, thoughts, and emotions were destroyed, those very ideas, thoughts, and emotions would go up in smoke with them.

Those are just a few of the examples of how the traditional book has exerted such power over men and women through the last seven centuries, at least in what we commonly think of as Western Civilization.

But the book’s endangerment is real; it is looming, as we can see from the recent failure of a number of both national book chains as well as the demise of many independent sellers and small bookstores throughout the nation, in big cities and small, not to mention, most alarmingly for many of us, the encroachment of technology in place of the traditional book, the replacement of books by Ipads, Iphones, Blackberries, Apps, and flat screen TVs as sources of entertainment and information. “What is the big deal?” some ardent progressives might ask. “No one reads anymore. The book is as outdated as the Edsel and the hula hoop and vinyl records and VHS tape. Let it die a quiet and dignified death. We as people will get along just fine.”

Or will we?

I propose not.

I would call to your attention the novelistic masterpiece of an author recently deceased, Ray Bradbury, facetiously dubbed “the master of Science Fiction,” but oh so more than that. Bradbury was a poet, even in prose, and a fantasist and a philosopher, perhaps a prophet too. Yes, very much a prophet. The novel to which I’m referring is Fahrenheit 451, initially published in 1953, a book perhaps many of you have not only read but taught. The novel’s setting is the United States sometime in the future. The U.S. has become, ostensibly, a police state, and one of its more unsavory aspects of this “new world” is the outlawing of books. Books are banned because of the emotional responses they evoke in people, the tendency they have to make people think for themselves, thus causing them to be unhappy because of the complexity of life that books reflect. If one is known to possess books, his home will be ransacked by a squad of “fireman,” who will arrest the perpetrator and then burn his or her books in a public fashion. So where, in this seeming Utopia envisioned by Bradbury, does one find recreation? Why in TV of course – flat screen TVs on which the announcers proclaim themselves “cousins” to the viewers, thus replacing actual biological family members. Or if one cannot find his happiness in constant viewing of the ubiquitous Big Screen, he may turn to pharmaceuticals to do the job, little green and yellow and red pills that will push away and vanquish any signs of unhappiness, for in the society of Fahrenheit 451 that is the number one goal, the raison d’etre, to be always happy. Happiness, however, comes at a grave cost. One must in exchange give up one’s memories, one’s capacity for authentic joy and sorrow, one’s awareness that life is a mixture of pleasure and pain, fulfillment and loss.

Although published sixty-one years ago, the book has as much relevance for our present times as it did then, perhaps more, since Bradbury’s predication of hypnosis by television and prescription has come to pass. (Who do you know without such a flat screen TV? What neighbor haven’t you run into at the Wal-Mart pharmacy?) My students hate the book, almost uniformly. And it is no wonder. “It’s boring,” they tell me as they continue without missing a beat the spider-like motions of their fingers on their tablets or pads. And part of me, while agonizing at such a statement, understands that too. Fahrenheit 451, while a short book, requires as much patience and thought as any longer work. And we live in a time when patience is in as almost short supply as manners and common decency. We don’t want to take the time and solitude required to enjoy and experience fully a compendium of words by a total stranger, not when we have the swift efficacy of Twitter and Instagram and, of course, Facebook where we can “message” at once our latest ache or pain . But as any wise person knows, worthwhile activities, those that leave us with lasting intellectual, emotional, and physical benefits, are those which require effort, time, and patience. Otherwise all human discourse becomes ephemeral and we are reduced to the catatonic consumers of clichés that populate Ray Bradbury’s novel.

Let me be not selective nor prejudiced in my great concern here. It is not merely the Internet, a device I use daily for my job as well as, ironically enough, to buy books, at fault here. The Internet’s predecessor, that eternal bugaboo, television itself, once called by the poet Larry Woiwode “the one eyed monster that eats books,” owns much of the blame for our growing illiteracy and reversion to the cave, as it has for many years now, and I cannot allow it to go unscathed here. No longer do we turn to Aristotle or Thomas Aquinas or even The King James Bible for moral and ethical instruction but to the faux-hillbillies of Duck Dynasty and the much-married but apparently little-learned Kardashian clan. If we want advice on how to proceed with our lives, we consult Snooki, late of the Jersey Shore, whom Cornell University, once a respected bastion of learning, recently paid a fee of $100,000 for an hour of her wit and wisdom. In Bradbury’s novel the personages haunting the flat screen TVs are more familiar presences than the characters’ spouses or neighbors, and at least to some extent that is what has happened to us. We are more concerned about the freedom of speech of a “reality TV star” than the plight of those who live around us who might be suffering malnutrition of both the body and the brain. The denizens of The Bold and the Beautiful and The Young and the Restless are more vivid to us, trapped in their twirling carousels of crises and paramours, than our neighbors or relations or co-workers. Even worse, television, through such programs as the CSI shows and Criminal Minds, among others, has presented violence with such elegant precision and balletic choreography in some cases that many people, specifically children, are numbed to the reality of such behavior and often imitate what they watch with or without the supervision of their parents.

I shall make one last lob at TV: I am increasingly convinced that the prevalence of so much television in our lives, particularly among the growing population of our elderly, people very often shut in and without sufficient contact with the outside world, has contributed to the greater incidence of Alzheimer’s disease in this country. After all, TV watching, like Internet surfing, is largely a passive activity, requiring essentially the click of one or two fingers on a remote or a mouse. Images are presented to us, requiring no actions of our own imagination. Details and facts are absorbed and analyzed and spit back at us faster than the linotype once employed in newspaper offices. The inhabitants of the Big Screen make up our minds for us. They tell us how to react, eat, vote, mate, pray, and raise our children. Worst of all, television provides the imagery that our own brains used to manufacture in the kind of creative thinking that marks an individual. We don’t have to do that anymore. In fact many of us prefer not to do it. One of the saddest lines of prose I ever read came from one of my own students late last fall semester. The class had been asked to compare William Faulkner’s short story “A Rose for Emily” with Alfred Hitchcock’s classic horror film Psycho. This particular student concluded his comparison with this observation: “It is better to watch the movie than read the book [sic] because then you don’t have to visualize anything for yourself.” Out of the mouth of babes, so to speak. From the keyboard of the young and upcoming. Have we become that mentally lethargic? Are we in the possession of such intellectual ennui? If so, we are in great trouble. The brain needs exercise, as much as any other part of the body, and one of the ways it attains that exercise is through the close and careful reading of books.

Now is the time, so late in this talk, to clarify my own position in this dilemma. Of course, as a teacher and writer of fiction, it is more my duty to encourage the reading of what we term, somewhat loosely, “literature.” One hesitates in using the term, for fear of having the same result that holy water does on the flesh of the vampire or the announcement of tax hikes to members of the Tea Party. Yet literature is democratic in the bigger sense. It encompasses a number of genres. It literally offers something for everyone.

When I discuss narrative fiction with my students I first present to them a quote by the Peruvian novelist Mario Vargas Llosa, a recent Nobel laureate in Literature. I discovered the quote many years ago in a collection of his essays entitled A Writer’s Reality. He called fiction “a necessary lie.” This is a provocative statement, perhaps one contradictory to our basic moral standards, since we have been brought up from childhood to believe that lying is bad behavior. Upon reflection, however, Vargas Llosa’s description makes sense. Fiction is something its creators make up. It is not factual. It did not really happen, as is the case with a lie, where the outcome is most certainly dubious. “How,” I ask my students, “can a lie be necessary?” We throw the question around and decide, collectively, that while narrative fiction does not have the same life-sustaining necessity as oxygen and water and food, nevertheless our lives would be greatly diminished without it. Most readers turn to narrative fiction seeking entertainment and escape, but there is an instruction quality to fiction as well, as we can see in the stories of the ancient Greeks and Romans, in the fables of Aesop, in the night-time tales of the Brothers Grimm which helped many of us go to sleep at night, and the parables of Jesus Christ, who understood that humans respond more favorably to stories than they do to traditional sermons.

“But I don’t like fiction. I like something that is true,” moan some opponents of reading novels and short stories. Madeline L’Engle, the late writer for children and adults, had the perfect response to such a reaction. She said, “Facts are limited things. Only stories can tell the real truth.” And she is right, for it is only in fiction, in the hands of master storytellers, that we see human behavior at its most vivid. Where else could we find a more harrowing depiction of mental struggle and family dysfunction than in Hamlet, with its protagonist vacillating between thought and action once he’s been asked to avenge his father’s murder? Not in a recondite medical tome and certainly not in the tawdry ramblings of Dr. Phil. Where is there a more poignant portrait of struggle and ultimate triumph, where is there a more lasting tribute to the values of fortitude and loyalty than in David Copperfield? Certainly not in the chronicles of The Many Wives from Nowhere or the dubious gyrations of Dancing with The Has Beens.

Fine, fine, you may be saying. But cannot I find these stories and their attendant amenities elsewhere than the book? After all, this is the twenty-first century, and we have the Nook and the Kindle and all their various brethren now at our disposal and can download any book we wish with a press of our index finger. Again, I would say no. First of all, these reading tablets are bad for the eyes. Their light at night can induce insomnia. And not every endeavor should be so quick and easy, including the acquiring of wisdom and pleasure. Secondly, they are contraptions, wholly impersonal, lacking in all the qualities – the lush pages, the bright covers, the individual designs – that make reading personal and meaningful and not dependent on the whims of electricity. Lastly, they are but another sign of what the Kentucky poet Wendell Berry lamented as man’s determination to become himself a machine, with this or that gadget attached to his person, even when he leaves the house, even in the midst of other human beings. We are in yet another context submitting ourselves to machines, turning over everything to them – even our imagination and our memories. And when that process is complete, we become something other, something less than human beings.

You might also enjoy these articles...